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What’s behind surging tensions in the Taiwan Strait?

  • June 6, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press
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Tensions are soaring in the strait that separates Taiwan from mainland China — just 130 km at its narrowest point — as Beijing continues to heap military, diplomatic and gray-zone pressure on Taipei.


In recent months, China has ramped up its military activities near the island, sending warplanes on near daily sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Beijing has deployed hulking commercial sand dredgers near islands and waters over which Taiwan claims jurisdiction, a move some have called tantamount to psychological warfare. And China’s vice foreign minister has said that when it comes to reunification with the mainland, “no option is excluded,” a veiled reference to invasion.


Taiwan has responded to China’s dialed-up campaign by turning to its closest partners, the United States and Japan, in a bid to bolster its defenses and deter Beijing from a conflict that experts say would have catastrophic consequences for not only the region but the world.

During an April leaders’ summit, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden made headlines by highlighting “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” — a rare public expression of leader-level concern over the situation and the first reference to Taiwan in a joint statement by the two countries since 1969.


This was echoed last month, when Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in similarly broached the issue in their joint statement and when European Union leaders joined Suga in encouraging the “peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.”


What’s the history behind this?

The geopolitical tension can be traced back to before World War II — from Japan’s colonial rule of the island from 1895 to 1945, and the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949.


After Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was placed under the control of the Republic of China. The Chinese Civil War also resumed, fought between Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang and Mao Zedong’s communist forces. With the communists overtaking control of the mainland, Chiang fled to Taiwan.


While the Kuomintang and the communists agreed that Taiwan was part of China, each insisted they were its true government. Since then, the government in Beijing has viewed Taiwan as an inherent part of its territory, a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.


During the Cold War, much of the developed world, including the United States and Japan, had diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Things began to shift in the late 1960s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon hinted at the need to normalize ties with Beijing, culminating in his landmark 1972 visit to China and the release of the Shanghai Communique, which laid the foundation for the eventual normalization of relations in January 1979.


During that time, the United Nations formally recognized the mainland communist government as the legitimate representative of China — leading to Taiwan’s expulsion from the international body.


But while Washington switched recognition to Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China — and ended its security treaty with Taipei — it did so without acknowledging Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. Instead, it merely “acknowledged” China’s position that Taiwan is part of China, the so-called One China principle, while not taking its own position, a stance that endures today.


Just three months later in 1979, U.S. lawmakers concerned about the decision — including Biden, a senator at the time — passed the Taiwan Relations Act. This set in stone Washington’s economic and security relationship with Taiwan, including a policy of selling “arms of a defensive character” to the island. It also cemented the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which expresses a strong interest in Taiwan’s security while avoiding an outright promise to defend it.


As for Tokyo, which had formal diplomatic relations with Taipei from 1952 to 1972, it quickly took Nixon’s cue, recognizing Beijing as the sole government of China shortly after the U.S. president’s visit and release of the Shanghai Communique. Though it does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, Japan has seen its engagement with Taiwan flourish in recent years, especially during the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


So why are tensions rising now?

As China has grown more powerful economically and militarily in recent years, it has asserted itself more boldly near Taiwan, apparently over worries that the island’s leaders could declare formal independence. Since its democratization in 1988, Taiwan has elected pro-independence leaders such as Chen Shui-bian, who governed the island from 2000 to 2008, and its current president, Tsai Ing-wen.


China has ratcheted up pressure on companies that don’t list Taiwan as a part of China on their websites and lured away some of the handful of countries that had diplomatic ties with Taipei.


It has also conducted scores of military exercises on its periphery, including around 380 sorties into Taiwan’s ADIZ last year — the most since 1996 — according to the island’s Defense Ministry.


The crackdown on Hong Kong, where Beijing silenced pro-democracy protesters with a new national security law, has also unnerved Taipei, since China had proposed that Taiwan, like Hong Kong, could also have operated under its proposed “one country, two systems” principle.

Washington, concerned about its own eroding military and economic superiority in the Indo-Pacific region, has bolstered informal ties and arms sales with Taipei and secured allied support in pushing for “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.


Compounding the fraught ties, Tsai has pointedly claimed that the island is already an independent country, therefore does not need to formally declare its independence.

China, in turn, has lambasted the U.S. and Taiwan for “colluding” toward formal independence — a red line for Beijing and the ruling Communist Party, which calls Taiwan its most important and sensitive issue.

The moves have spotlighted a growing focus on the possibility of a Taiwan contingency that experts say could quickly spiral out of control, sucking in not only the United States, but Japan as well.


Has the issue ever come close to an all-out military conflict?

There have been multiple “crises” over the island. In the 1950s, the U.S. military weighed a first-use nuclear attack on mainland China. And between 1995 and 1996, a showdown saw U.S. President Bill Clinton send two aircraft carrier battle groups to waters off Taiwan, after Beijing lobbed missiles near the island in a bid to intimidate pro-democracy, pro-independence voters.


In the end, China backed down in the face of America’s show of force, but recent tensions have taken on a new dimension, especially as the Chinese are closing the gap in military strength with the United States.


What’s the outlook under the Biden administration?

According to the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the Chinese threat to invade Taiwan is serious and more imminent than many understand.


Adm. John Aquilino told the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of his confirmation on March 23, that Beijing considers recovering control over Taiwan its “No. 1 priority” and that “the rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake” with the issue, though he did not echo his predecessor’s comments that China could attempt to invade the island within six years.


“My opinion is that this problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on,” Aquilino said.


But these views are unlikely to change the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity.


Highlighting this, Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress in late April that the Chinese would view such a shift as “deeply destabilizing.”


“I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China’s rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide,” Haines said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.


Rather, the Biden administration is expected to focus on maintaining the status quo.


“Our goal right now is, frankly, to enhance deterrence,” Kurt Campbell, the White House’s top official for Asia said on May 28, noting clear U.S. “statements of purpose, private warnings and assurances,” as well as efforts “to bring other countries into the effort” to maintain peace and stability in the strait.


How does Japan view the fraught security environment on its doorstep?

Japan, for its part, has watched China’s moves near Taiwan with apprehension.


For Tokyo, Taiwan provides a bulwark against potential security threats and economic coercion from Beijing. Facing both the disputed South and East China seas — and sitting just 111 kilometers from Japan’s southernmost island of Yonaguni and 509 kilometers from Okinawa’s main island, home to major U.S. military and Self-Defense Force bases — the island is effectively a giant aircraft carrier sitting off China’s coast.


Observers say Chinese domination of Taiwan would shake the military balance in the Western Pacific and also hand Beijing the potential to control sea lanes vital to Tokyo’s trade and energy supplies.


These fears have prompted Tokyo to speak out more vociferously in support of stability in the Taiwan Strait, including in the Biden-Suga joint statement, the first-ever reference to Taiwan in the joint statement with the EU and a planned mention in Japan’s annual defense white paper, another first.


The government is also reportedly studying potential responses by the Self-Defense Forces if conflict were to erupt between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, including how it would operate in certain scenarios under the strict confines of the nation’s national security laws.


Beijing has reacted furiously to the united front on Taiwan, singling out Japan in particular for “portraying China as a threat” and “ganging up with a few others to pursue geopolitical confrontation.”


Although some observers argue that taking Taiwan by force would be disastrous for China’s ruling Communist Party, others believe the party, which has fanned a particularly fervent brand of nationalism, must do so to assuage questions of its legitimacy.


Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former deputy secretary-general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat and former assistant chief Cabinet secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, wrote recently that while Tsai is hoping to preserve the status quo through her policy of balanced diplomacy, “that is unlikely to satisfy China.”


“President Xi Jinping, who is determined to build a legacy rivaling that of Mao Zedong, has both the will and the means to subjugate Taiwan,” Kanehara, now a special visiting professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, wrote last week. “It is only a question of timing. This is the daunting strategic reality that confers such significance on the reference to ‘peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait’ in the April 16 Japan-U.S. joint statement.”

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